By Gerald Hausman
Bokeelia, FL, USA
As a people they have been called by many names - from Rom, their name today - to Egyptian, a name of the distant past, from which we get the word most commonly used and misunderstood, Gypsy.
Bercovici, himself a Rom, explains that his people originally came from India.
Most of us know this by now, but I did not know that they came from the lowest of low castes in India, and that they were quite literally kicked out of that country. Thus they began a diaspora that stretches into the 20th century. The legend states that the people were told to leave India for siding with the wrong party, so to speak. Off they went for a seven year banishment that lasted for some 600 hundred years. Each country they arrived in, supposedly, extended their banishment by seven years and so on ad infinitum.
Once upon a time, so the ancient tales tell, they stayed in Egypt, were absorbed there, then kicked out, as was the custom, and went to Europe. There they were given the privilege of a kind of entitlement by kings and queens. No harm could come to them, they were allowed to work, and mayors of towns and provinces helped them along with grants in aid, but these "Egyptians" were always told to move along. They could come back - after seven years.
However, when asked, "Where do the Gypsies come from?" Bercovici answered:
Konrad Bercovici (1882-1961)
Where do the swallows come from?
I am speaking of a people whose vocabulary lacks two words - possession and duty.
You cannot fathom what would happen to your own life if these two boundaries were to disappear...
I am personally more interested in the swallows than the boundaries, and I, like Bercovici have some Romany ancestry, so it was enlightening to me to learn that the Gypsy myth of origin, their own story, is that they were once birds. When they landed in a field rich in grain, they devoured as much as they could eat. And thus could fly no more.
Once, while doing a live interview on television, I was asked about my background and I said that I was a "Gypsy Jew." After the show, a woman met me at the studio and said she was one of the same. I asked, "How did we get to be such double wanderers?"
And she answered, "I was told by my father that as Jews, we were incapable of mending carriages and fixing wagons. We were not so good at caring for horses either. So the Rom came and helped us, while, in return, we helped them with their legal documents. That's how we got to be Gypsy Jews - it all happened in the hay of the barn, I was told."
Strangely enough, our family once lived in a place called Free Acres in New Jersey. This was a self-sustaining village of European immigrants, mostly Jewish, who founded a town that worked exactly like a kibbutz. And there was a man named Konrad Bercovici there, who loved stories, horses, fiddles and mustaches, just like my father.